Different Ways of dying: A Short Story

Posted on: October 19, 2009
1 comment so far

By Michael Shafto


I HAVE A hangover
the size of which you wouldn’t believe. It’s like those two on the tennis circuit – Federer and Nadal – knocking up inside my skull. Bam-bam! Back and forth, endlessly. To crown it all my tongue feels as furry as a best-quality Persian carpet.
All in all I’m not exactly feeling well on this all too bright sunny morning in downtown Jo’burg.
I fumble open the top righthand drawer of my desk. The red and gold labelled Johnnie Walker bottle has maybe a tot left in it. I fish it out with its constant companion, a cracked willow-pattern teacup. I empty the bottle into the cup, raise it to my lips and swallow. Do I feel instantly better? Unhappily, that happens only in fiction.
I hook a squashed pack of Camel Plain from my coat pocket and light one of the wrinkled tubes with an old silver lighter. The smoke hits the back of my throat like fumes from a cracked exhaust pipe. I’m thinking the day can’t possibly get worse when the phone begins to jangle and my headache returns with renewed fury.
I clear my throat and pick up this angry black instrument of torture. At least that stops it shrieking.

“SEAMUS O’Shea, PI,” I croak.
“Are you the private detective?” a small sweet voice asks.
“This is he.”
“What is your name please?”
I love it: some dizzy tart – I bet she’s blonde – phones up a private detective agency, you give her your name and confirm your occupation, then she asks for your name and occupation. Women!
“Seamus O’Shea,” I repeat wearily.
“Don’t adopt that tone of voice with me, Mr. O’Shea. All it says in the book – I picked you up in the Yellow Pages – is ‘Ace Detective Agency’.”
She’s right. When I was starting out I had ideas of a fancy logo: the traditional silhouette of a PI with snappy fedora and gun until I asked the price. So I settled for “Ace Detective Agency. Privacy & Results Guaranteed.”
“Sorry,” I say lamely. “I haven’t been too well lately.”
“Your state of health is not my concern. It’s your skills in detection I require, Mr. O’Shea.”
“Yes, ma’am.” What the hell, I’ll eat dirt. I haven’t had a case of consequence for almost a month. Beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m just one step up from that level of penury.
“Are you Irish?”
“Of extraction.”
“You know what they say about the Irish?”


“That we’re lucky?”

  “I was thinking more of the Paddy who said he didn’t know you needed a ticket to win the Irish Sweep.”
“I see. How would you like it if I gave you the traditional treatment of a halfwit Irish PI and banged this phone down in your ear.”
“That wouldn’t be in your best interests though, would it?”
Right again – and for one very simple reason: the voice of this lady is very Private School, very mellifluous and dripping with cash. I pause deliberately, waiting for her to speak again – with those words that drip diamonds.
“I’d like you to come out to the house… No. 48 Plumtree Drive, Lower Houghton.”
Why is it I’m not surprised? It’ll be one of those great big double-storeys, with walls two metres high that enclose tennis court, swimming pool and private bowling green. A fully sprung dancefloor above the treble-garage.
“I could do that.”
“You know the street?”
“Yes, ma’am. When would you like me to come?”
“This afternoon would be good. Say, just after lunch.”
“I’ll be there.” I stifle a cough as I light another Camel. “And I’m speaking to?”
“It’s Miss Millicent Parker-Bowles, daughter of Badger Parker-Bowles.” Well, well. It seems to me she stops just short of adding, mining magnate of note.
“And could you give me any indication, Miss Parker-Bowles as to the nature of the investigation?”
“Murder, Mr. O’Shea. Or, more precisely, the avoidance of one. That would be your job – to make sure it doesn’t happen. Goodbye, Mr. O’Shea.”
I check my .45 in the drawer one down from where Johnnie Walker lives. It’s a pretty piece, small but with a solid heft to it. Not that I’ve ever used it in anger, but you never know.

I LOOK up sadly at the inscription on the frosted glass upper panel of my office door. From here its back to front. On the customer’s side it reads: Ace Detective Agency, Seamus O’Shea, Private Eye. Perhaps you should know a bit more about this. You might like to know, for instance, that once I was an SAPS cop. CID, no less.
But when my wife left me for a wholesaler for his superior bank balance and greater respectability, I lost it for a while. I got drunk more than was advisable and wound up giving a fellow officer a punch in the snout. When this happened three more times with even more senior officers even the head of our division, Detective Inspector Danie Vermuelen, my best pal outside working hours, couldn’t help me. I had to take demotion or quit. I chose the latter.

IT’S 14:02 on my fake Rolex digital as I pull up in my apple-green ’70s VW Beetle with
its crumpled right fender, courtesy of some Jo’burg driver in a hurry, such a hurry he took the headlight with him. Now it looks like a one-eyed Battle of the Bulge war veteran.
Looking at the wrought-iron gates that dwarf my battered car, I think about the reading I’ve been doing for the last hour over at the Public Library around the corner from my pokey Commissioner St. office. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t come. As the writer Scott Fitzgerald once observed, “the very rich are different from you and me.” He wasn’t kidding.
There’s a speaker on a pole by the gates. I press the buzzer and announce myself. A cultured butler voice informs me I’m expected. The gates open, majestically.
A man stands to one side of the solid oak front door. He is dapper, with slicked hair and steely blue eyes, chin imperiously tilted. But he’s nice. He calls me “sir”. He shows me into a lounge the size of a tennis court. Sitting at the far end in an armchair, seamless-stockinged knees neatly crossed below a miniscule miniskirt is this stunning female. Yes, she’s blonde with a heartshaped face, darkly arched eyebrows, a sweetly shaped mouth and the kind of teeth you only see in toothpaste ads.
Regally, her left hand indicates a chair, a whole lot smaller than hers. It lets you know who’s boss. I notice a pair of kid gloves stylishly overlapping the hip pocket of a sleeveless jacket, worn loosely over the miniskirt.
“Mr. O’Shea.”
“Miss Parker-Bowles.”
The butler enters with drinks on a tray. Two double Scotches on the rocks, a new bottle of Chivas Regal next to an ice-bucket. Hers is just a shade too pale: I suspect it’s flat ginger ale.
We get down to business. Millicent tells me she fears there’s a contract out on her father’s life. He’s poised for a takeover bid of a major competitor. “You know how cutthroat big business is?”
“Don’t tell me,” I say. It seems the right thing.
My job, says Millicent, will be to act as bodyguard. Jackpot! It could go on for months. I feel like a cash register, the takings constantly mounting.
“So, when do I get to meet Mr. Badger Parker-Bowles?”
“He’s waiting for us. I’ll be taking you through in a moment. I don’t want you exciting him too much after his heart attack last month.”
“Of course.” I read about that. “Is he much –?”

MY question is cut off as an angular young man comes barging in. It’s her twin brother, Clem, not at all alike – dark-haired and sallow. I’ve been reading about him, too: the family junkie; cocaine, heroin, you name it. Right now though he looks anything but doped up. His eyes are popping with panic.
“Milly! Quickly, it’s Dad. I think he’s had another heart attack! I – I think he may be dead!”


“What? Don’t be silly, Clem. Pull yourself together.” But she’s already standing up. Something’s very odd here. She jerks her head peremptorily at me. “You better come, too.”
I follow. We go along a thickly-carpeted passage to the book-lined study. Badger Parker-Bowles is sitting behind a mahogany desk as wide as a cricket pitch. He’s very dead, eyes wide with fright.
I notice the cigarette he was smoking has fallen from his mouth. It is little more than a butt. It has burnt itself out in a fold of his grey sleeveless cardigan. There’s a burn mark in the wool just above his paunch, on the lefthand side, about where his heart is.
Millicent moves swiftly to her father’s side, bends her head to the level of his gaping mouth. “I think Clem’s right. He isn’t breathing.”
I step up and check his jugular. Not a murmur. He’s dead all right.

WE are back in the tennis court-sized lounge, the coke-freak brother, Clem, looking grey and shaky, sits in a chair he has drawn up on Millicent’s right. “Sh-shouldn’t we call an ambulance?”
She looks at me. “What’s the usual procedure, Mr. O’Shea?”
“Usually, you need a doctor to pronounce the deceased dead. But there’s nothing usual about this death.”
“What you mean?”
“I think you know what I mean.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re a very clever woman, Miss Parker-Bowles. But you made a few mistakes. Well, one crucial one.” Suddenly I’m seeing daylight. I put my hand in my jacket pocket, fiddle for a moment. My hand reappears with my pack of Camels. I light one. “I’m sure when the police search the house they’ll find a small revolver. The one you used on your father.”
She laughs in my face. “My father wasn’t shot. He died of a heart attack. Are you on something, Mr. O’Shea?”
Her brother’s eyes are jumping all over the place.
“No, I’m not. But I know someone who is.”
She looks at her brother. “Pull yourself together, Clem,” she orders. Her eyes return to me. “Don’t be tiresome, O’Shea. Of course it was a heart attack.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt a doctor’ll pronounce cause of death as heart attack – but not the usual kind.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Nice little conspiracy you had going here with your brother, Miss Parker-Bowles. It was a heart attack all right, brought about when your dad saw his daughter approach him with a .32 and pull the trigger. But the pistol was loaded with a blank round, wasn’t it?”
“Milly –?”
“Shut-up, Clem!” Her eyes swivel to me. “You really are preposterous, O’Shea!” You have to give her full marks. She’s as cool as a refrigerated cucumber.

“Hear me out. You did plenty of research. Firstly you found yourself a private detective hardup on his luck. There were never any threats on your dad’s life. But he was going to change his will. He was sick of the behaviour of you two. I’ve been reading up on your escapades. How many times has Clem been in rehab now? And you dragging the Parker-Bowles name through the mud with your unsuitable men.”
She tries to interrupt, but I bulldoze on. “I think you read of a similar murder. You knew the wadding of the blank would leave a burn-mark. So you were ready. Wearing those gloves in your jacket pocket, you took one of your father’s cigarettes, had Clem light it and smoke it just past halfway. Then you doused it with just a drop of water and placed it on top of the burn in the cardigan. What could look more natural? Better still, you did a double switcheroo, making sure if things went wrong the guilt would point to Clem. He lit and smoked the cigarette first. His DNA will prove that conclusively.”
Clem’s lips are quivering like jelly. “I didn’t do anything! I’m not going down for this. It was all your idea, Milly!”
“Don’t be such an idiot. He can’t prove a thing. He’s just guessing.” Her eyes glisten with hate. “So I did it. But who’s going to listen to you, a disgraced cop with an axe to grind? My lawyer will chew you in little pieces, O’Shea!”
I give her my best smile, trying not to show the gap of the missing eyetooth I lost playing for the Police 3rd XV. I put my hand in my jacket pocket and produce a tape recorder. It’s still running. “Just a moment ago you made mistake number two. I got it here on tape – your confession.”
“You idiot,” she spits at me like a mamba – a very angry blonde mamba.
I smile. “My birth certificate,” I gently chide, “will show that’s mistake number three. It’s a slur my old mum certainly wouldn’t take kindly to.”
I take the .45 I’ve never fired in anger from my hip pocket, just in case Millicent or her brother should try something desperate. In my lefthand is my cellphone. I’m dialing Detective Inspector Danie Vermuelen, in charge of CID Homicide. I think he’ll like the neatly wrapped up case I’m about to pass him – just like the days when the same Danie and me played for the Police 3rd rugby XV.


One Response to “Different Ways of dying: A Short Story”

  1. George Says:

    Good story well done Michael
    Sydney Oz

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